By Elisabeth Hellenbroich

End of October 2018 the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan oranized a summit in Istanbul, which was attended by several heads of state: German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron. The aim of the summit – the first of that kind after years of murderous war in Syria – was to discuss ways for settlement and a political solution in the Syria conflict. Turkey is also engaged in the Astana Peace Process which was initiated in 2017 together with Russia and Iran. End of September 2018 Putin and Erdogan agreed in Sochi to create a “demilitarized zone” in the province of Idlib, the last area which is not under control of the Syrian Army under Bashar al-Assad.

There are three million people living in this province and the ISIS is taking hostages among the civilian population. In the final communique of the heads of state summit the signers explicitly rejected any “separatist” solution to the conflict: that would go against Syria’s territorial integrity. Berlin and Paris evaluated the summit as a success, since it would help to promote the Geneva peace process. The communique calls for creating conditions to ensure a “voluntary and secure return of refugees” and make sure that they are not threatened by arbitrary arrests. They also underlined the need for a permanent ceasefire in Idlib. German Chancellor Merkel emphasized that at the summit all participants expressed the need for a meeting of the 150 member Constitutional committee in order to define guidelines for Syria’s political future, which includes elections, the return of refugees and the need for an international conference about those questions.

On this background it is important to study a booklet which was published at the beginning of 2018 by “Aid to the church in Need” (ACN International, a charity of pontifical right which through its offices in 24 countries supports Christians wherever they are persecuted, oppressed or in material need through information, prayer and action). The booklet gives a very moving testimony about the immense destruction which was caused by the war in Syria that began in 2011 and lead to the total destruction of many parts of the country — killing half a million Syrians and forcing almost 12 Million Syrian citizens to flee their homes.

During this war the Christian population was targeted with particular brutality, which included the slaughtering of Christians by jihadist forces, ransacking their Holy Places and homes as well as symbols. Almost no attention has been given so far to the immense damage that was inflicted by the ISIS to Christian Holy places, Churches, monasteries, cemeteries and youth centers. The booklet informs for the first time how, thanks to the initiatives of a mixed commission work of Catholic and Russian Orthodox priests (that was created in the aftermath of the historic meeting between Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia and Pope Francis in Havana, February 12, 2016), reconstruction has begun in several Holy Places, offering renewed hope to the thousands of Christians that were persecuted by the fanatic Jihad forces and had to flee their homes. The preface of the booklet was written by Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, Chairman “Department for External Church Relations Moscow Patriarchate” as well as by Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the “Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.”

In reference to the “historic” meeting which took place between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia, Hilarion emphasized that “the two first hierarchs were motivated by the really catastrophic situation in which our brothers and sisters in Christ found themselves because of military conflicts and the invasion of extremists into the ancient Biblical land of the Middle East and North Africa. Irreparable damage has been done to Christianity in the region. Thousands of Christians died as martyrs, Millions were left without shelter and had to flee from the country. Hundreds of church buildings, monasteries and holy sites were desecrated and ruined.” He underlined that “interreligious dialogue” is a key tool for protecting Christians from prosecution and that it is important to note that “the Syrian Christians used to live amid Muslims for centuries and good-neighborly and peaceful co-existence is a priority to them.” With the assistance of the Moscow Patriarchate, humanitarian cargos were delivered to the Valley of Christians in Homs province, to Aleppo and other cities of Syria, he reports. Now that the main terrorist forces have been defeated. “The post-war structuring of Syria has become a priority. It is necessary to restore churches, infrastructure and residence buildings, to create conditions for regular celebration by clergy, and for safety and security.” He particularly thanked for the support which is given by the Foundation ACN and expressed hope that “the booklet will contribute to the restoration of the churches and holy sites in the ancient land of Syria where the word ‘Christians’ was first pronounced.”

The second preface was authored by the President of the “Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity”, Cardinal Kurt Koch. He described the booklet as “fruit of ecumenical collaboration between the Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church” and emphasized that it was the dramatic situation in the Middle East which was one of the main concerns on the agenda of the historical meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill in Havana 2016. The shared concern of “our Churches for peace in this region, for the end of the persecution suffered by many Christians and other minorities, and for the importance of interreligious dialogue, was reflected in the joint Declaration signed on that occasion.”(…) In order to take tangible steps, a joint working group bringing together representative of the Catholic Church in Russia and representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate, with the participation of the foundation ACN was established almost immediately following the Havana meeting.

During the last two years, as Cardinal Koch recounts, different actions have been taken: “The first delegation of this joint group visited Syria and Lebanon from 6-7 April 2016, in order to offer a sign of solidarity to Christians of various Churches in the region and to reflect with them on constructing a way forward together. On September 17 2017 a second delegation of this group visited the region.” While the primary needs of the local populations in Syria, according to ardinal Koch, are of humanitarian nature, “with the prospect of a gradual return to peace, it is also important to be able to prepare the reconstruction not only of houses, but also of the numerous religious buildings destroyed by the war. The reconstruction of holy sites, churches and pastoral structures is indispensable not only because they are part of the cultural and spiritual heritage of this region, but also a sign of hope and encouragement for Christians, who have lived in these lands since the very origin of Christianity, either to remain or to return.”

The booklet shows photos representing the Catholic- Orthodox Working group – one showing the Metropolitan Hilarion and Catholic Bishop Kimovich during their meeting in Zahleh (Lebanon). In another article, Father Andrzej Halemba (PhD), who is Head of the Middle East section for Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), describes the multiple projects in which ACN is involved in the Mideast. Since the beginning of the military crisis in Syria 2011 ACN has supported Christians with emergency aid. Last year alone suffering Syrians were helped by ACN benefactors with 4,7 million Euros in emergency aid. Economic sanctions affected access to health care, medicine and basic essentials and as result of the embargo, as Father Halemba reported, this had a “devastating effect upon families, especially among those with children, pregnant women and elderly people who were unable to satisfy their basic needs.” ACN initiated food supply projects, such as for example “Food baskets”, a program which was enjoying the cooperation of ecumenical partners from nine different Christian Churches thus strengthening the unity of the Church which in Syria is made up of a number of different ecclesial rites.

The “drop of milk” project supported families with small children, adopting the same ecumenical approach, thus increasing the project’s effectiveness. In autumn 2017, as Halemba reports, the security situation allowed children and students to return on a regular basis to school, college and university. Here it became also clear that more support was needed in terms of renovating school-buildings, as well as meeting basic needs like core text books, as well as providing transport and school uniforms. In order to address this challenge another ecumenical initiative was launched, namely scholarships and about 10.000 pupils and other students from Homs, Marmarita, Aleppo, Tartous and other parts of the country were able to benefit from it. This program developed the communion between different churches.

As a next step, the ACN is now determined to work with Church Leaders and their communities to restore the Christian presence and prestige in the country , “which historians recall as the cradle of the civilization and Christianity, the birthplace of cultures.” The ACN charity is thus giving signs of hope, “by rebuilding the destroyed homes of Christ and his people. Christians still live in Syria and many of those who were displaced want to return. Rebuilding is this key to the future of Christianity in Syria,” Halemba wrote. He referred to a recent ACN survey: Of “300 parishes in Syria, 120 reported damage or destruction of- at least one of their buildings- either a church or a church owned structure, such as a school, kindergarten, convent or parish hall/ community center. This means that more than one out of three parishes under review were affected. Many Christian homes also came under fire as well. To date ACN has recorded 5,675 damaged or destroyed homes”(mostly in regions such as Aleppo and Homs). Even more tragic is that the jihadist violence and military action has led to massive loss of life, including many Christians. ACN understands that about 900 Christians were killed and a further 450 abducted. In a graph it is shown that 920 Christians were killed and 450 Christians kidnapped. Halemba underlined that aside the need to fundraise on an international level enough funds for supporting the kind of reconstruction that is needed in Syria, it is important to note that the “Church in Syria has long since been recognized for its role promoting reconciliation, acting as a mediator, bridge- builder, a voice of dialogue and an advocate of the rights of minorities.”

Crimes against civilization

The booklet documents with many photos the case of 31 Christian Churches and Holy Places- most of them located in Aleppo, Homs, Damascus and some in the countryside. Looking at the photos which inform the reader how the holy places looked before and after destruction, it becomes evident what crime against humanity and Syrian culture has been done against Syria and its people. The only information given by the Western mainstream media is about the “Monster Assad” while being totally silent about the crimes that have been perpetrated against the Syrian People, its precious culture and its holy places. It is clear that Syria is one of the cradles of early Christian culture and civilization which were targeted by the murderous Jihadists. These places include, only to name a few: “Saint Mary” (Mart Meryem) Assyrian church in Tel Nasri, Al Hasskah Governorate; the “Forty Martyrs” Armenian Orthodox Church, in the Al Jdeyeh district of Aleppo; “Mount Sayda” Greek Orthodox Cemetery in Aleppo; “Saint Assia (Mar Asia Al Hakim) Syriac Catholic Church in the Al Jdeyeh district in Aleppo, one of the oldest churches in Aleppo dating from the 15th century. “Saint Vartan” (Deir Vartan) Jesuit Center and Monastery, Al Midan district in Aleppo. “ Saint Elijah” Maronite Cathedral, Al Jdeyeh district in Aleppo”; Our Lady Queen of Peace” Greek Melkite Cathedral, Old City of Homs, as well as “Saint Mary of the Holy Belt” (Um Al Zennar) Syriac Orthodox Cathedral, old city of Homs. This cathedral that was built over an underground church dating from the 1st century is the seat of the Syriac Orthodox Archbishop. It was damaged in 2011- 2012 during conflict between the armed opposition and the Syrian government security forces.

The Syriac Orthodox Patriarch, His Holiness Ignatius Aphrem II stated: “We are a peace- seeking people, and we will rebuild the country of Syria on the basis of coexistence and amity – for both Muslims and Christians;” while Monsignor Elias Adass from “Our Lady of Montligeon” Maronite Church, Al Hamadiyah district in Aleppo, expressed the hope which is shared by the Christians inside and outside of Syria: “In this situation of destructive terror, there is only one path, illuminated by faith, that can be taken by every believer who lives in Jesus Christ. There is only one answer to all: The resurrection. As Christ renewed what was destroyed, we must lay a new foundation and rebuild our Christian life there.”

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